59. God’s Purpose for Christian Community

by May 6, 20242024

The Christian church is in decline!”  We see this headline everywhere, from the The New York Times to The Atlantic. We’re told about the rise in “nones” particularly within the Millennials and Gen-Xers.  Many of us have grieved over our own sons and daughters walking away from the faith. Statistics reveal just how serious this decline is.

 

“More people have left the church in the last 25 years than all the new people who became Christians from the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and Billy Graham crusades combined.”

 

This quote is from Jim Davis and Michael Graham, two pastors in Florida, who recently published The Great De-Churching, in which they studied the reasons for this decline. With the assistance of professional political scientists, Davis and Graham interviewed thousands of “ex-vangelicals” as well as those who have left mainline and black churches. Notwithstanding the decline in attendance due to Covid, the reasons given for opting out of church are worth noting.

 

While we may suspect church scandals and rising secularity to be the main culprits, the authors discovered that a higher percentage left for much more mundane reasons. Eighteen percent reported leaving because “their friends weren’t there”. Another 18% stated that attending was “no longer convenient”. The percentage drops to 16% each for “gender and sexuality” issues and because of church scandals.

 

Underlying each of these reasons is a more fundamental issue: many of us have failed to understand, from a New Testament perspective, just what the Church is. We have tended to view church the same way we would a club or association, albeit in more religious terms. We’ve prioritized our unique personal preferences or family needs and have lost sight of what the Church actually is: the Family of God – the Body of Jesus Christ. For many, church has become a “deliverer of goods and services” that must compete with other churches to “get my business”. For others, the ecclesia– the gathered church – has become optional or merely supplemental to their private spirituality.

 

Why Church?

 

For the Apostle Paul (as well as for Jesus), the church is both the mode and method of God’s ongoing redemptive work. Through its worship and submission to Jesus Christ as “Head” and its unity in the Spirit, the church functions as a witness to a fallen, fragmented world. It is meant to be an expression of God’s loving reign “on earth as it is in heaven”. Through its united worship and witness, the church is meant to be a “signpost” to the surrounding world – pointing to and demonstrating (however imperfectly) God’s renewal of all creation. Isn’t it surprising to see that unity in the church as well as holiness are the most prevalent admonishments given by Paul in the Epistles?

 

Take one such admonition as an example: in writing to the Corinthian church about the Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11:29, ESV), Paul writes, For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. What does Paul mean by “discerning the body”? There are two different points Paul could be making – I believe he’s making both.

 

Living Your Identity and Purpose

 

First, the gathered church members must understand who they truly are. They are the Body of Christ; having been rescued, adopted, and united into God’s family. Consider Jesus’ prayer:

 

“The glory that you (Father) have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17: 22- 23, ESV)

 

Paul echoes this when he writes to the believers in Ephesus:

 

“He (God) predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ. …There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Ephesians 1: 5, 4: 4-5, ESV).

 

We may personally feel like the one sheep who strayed from the ninety-nine, but through Jesus’ death we have been brought into the fold – into the one family of God through Jesus Christ. We are not to remain “lone ranger sheep”. For this very reason, the writer of Hebrews implores believers to:

 

“…consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10: 24-25)

 

Second, the gathered church must understand how they are to be as the Body of Christ. We see this clearly when we understand the context of Paul’s warning to the Corinthians. Discerning the body means seeing each of the members as brothers and sisters – all equal and each essential. Specifically, Paul is chastising the rich Corinthians of feasting together in the inner dining area of the house while the poorer believers ate meagerly in the outer courtyard.

 

The same inclination toward personal privilege and preference that were prevalent in Roman society were on full display in the Corinthian church. Today we echo the same corruption, “I want it my way”.

 

God’s Glory Through Community

 

At the centerpiece of Christian worship, the Lord’s Table, Paul insists that Christians carefully and even fearfully discern not only who they are (as members of God’s family) but how they are to express this.  In a world torn apart by ethnic, social, and political strife, the church is to gather as one Body – rich and poor, sophisticated and uncouth, “successful” and homeless, young and old, Republican and Democrat, black and white, etc. – under one Lord and united by one Spirit. This, according to Jesus’ prayer, is what will convince the unbelieving world that He truly is King and Lord of all.